Finland By Roger Connah. Reaktion Books, 2006. 288pp. £16.95 This is the first in a series on 'Modern Architectures in History', which aims to situate the architecture(s) of particular countries in a broader political, cultural and aesthetic context than usual. Finland is an ideal subject, for after many years of foreign rule, architecture played a significant role in shaping its emerging national identity in the 20th century.
The outline of Roger Connah's story - from the development of an exotic version of Jugendstil, via the brief interlude of Nordic Classicism to the embrace of Modernism and its subsequent 'humanisation' by Aalto - is familiar. But by setting it in a broader context, not least the often fraught politics of the architectural community itself, what emerges is a much more richly nuanced narrative populated by players who remain little known abroad, such as Erkki Huttunen and the precociously gifted and fervent Corbusian, Pauli Blomstedt.
Blomstedt died tragically young, at 36. Had he lived, he might well have offered a potent counterpoint to Aalto.
As it was, Aalto's 'softened' Modernism swept almost all before it, dominating the international perception of Finland. At home, however, it became the focus of opposition.
Although he designed the new university at Otaniemi, its library initially contained no accounts of his work, and the most inuential teachers there - Aulis Blomstedt, Arno Ruusuvuori and Keijo Petäjä - articulated a position that, albeit unwittingly, anticipated the utilitarian rationalism of the 1960s.
With the foundation of the Museum of Finnish Architecture in 1956, international promotion of the achievements of the new 'Golden Age' gained momentum, but in the process this synthesis of nature and culture, craft and industry, became to many a 'golden cage'. The mainstream - promoted via the Museum and the profession's own journal, Arkkitehti - embraced a reductive neo-Miesian architecture and, following the completion of his provocative Dipoli building, marginalised arguably the most gifted architect to emerge since the War, Reima Pietilä.
As a Finnish-speaking writer with a literary as well as architectural background, Connah is admirably equipped to write this very wellresearched, authoritative account. He makes informative connections to the other arts, but in the determination to be comprehensive and 'revisionist', Aalto's contribution is somewhat taken for granted and the Finns' famed love affair with nature insufficiently explored.
The overt displays of cleverness that made his book on Pietilä (Writing Architecture) painful to read are happily absent, but the narrative thread - especially at first - can be hard to follow. But it is well worth pressing on, and in a conclusion of general relevance Connah invites Finnish architects to re-examine the suppressed byways of their own past as a means of going beyond the photogenic sterility of today's mainstream.